Bush Would Export Nuclear Fuel, Power Plants to Developing Nations

WASHINGTON, DC, February 20, 2006 (ENS) - Nuclear power is the primary focus of his plan to wean the United States off fossil fuels and give developing countries the electricity they need, President George W. Bush said in his radio address to the nation on Saturday. The President's plan would divide nations into two classes - nuclear fuel supplier nations and user nations.

In President Bush's view, nuclear power is "safe and clean" and it generates "large amounts of low-cost electricity without emitting air pollution or greenhouse gases."

The President acknowledged two problems with the expansion of nuclear power. "We must dispose of nuclear waste safely," he said, "and we must keep nuclear technology and material out of the hands of terrorist networks and terrorist states."


Seated in the Oval Office, President George W. Bush delivers one of his weekly Saturday morning radio addresses. (Photo by Eric Draper courtesy The White House)
President Bush proposes to solve these problems with a new plan called the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership announced with his Fiscal Year 2007 budget earlier this month.

"Under this partnership," the President said Saturday, "America will work with nations that have advanced civilian nuclear energy programs, such as France, Japan, and Russia."

"Together, we will develop and deploy innovative, advanced reactors and new methods to recycle spent nuclear fuel. This will allow us to produce more energy, while dramatically reducing the amount of nuclear waste and eliminating the nuclear byproducts that unstable regimes or terrorists could use to make weapons."

The Bush administration's Fiscal Year 2007 budget includes $250 million to launch this plan as part of the administration's overall $632 million request for the Office of Nuclear Energy, Science and Technology to spend on nuclear technology research, development, and infrastructure.

The United States has not built a new nuclear power plant since the 1970s, said the President in his radio address, pointing out that France has built 58 nuclear power plants during that time period and now gets about 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.

power plant

The United States' newest nuclear reactor is Watts Bar 1 located 10 miles south of Spring City, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
Yet, while no new plants has been built during that time, the United States has had five new nuclear plants come on-line since 1990. The most recent is the Watts Bar 1 nuclear reactor located between Chattanooga and Knoxville and operated by the federal government's Tennessee Valley Authority, which came on-line February 7, 1996.

Still, President Bush is determined to encourage the nuclear industry to build more power plants, saying, "Our goal is to start the construction of new nuclear power plants by the end of this decade."

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership includes five elements that are projected to meet the energy needs of the United States - building a new generation of nuclear power plants in the United States, developing and deploying new nuclear recycling technologies, managing and storing spent nuclear fuel in the United States, designing Advance Burner Reactors that would produce energy from recycled nuclear fuel, and enhancing resistance to nuclear proliferation.

Two elements of the plan are aimed at giving nuclear power to developing nations. The United States and partners would establish a fuel services program for developing nations, and in addition, the nuclear fuel supplier nations would develop and construct what the President calls "small scale reactors" designed for the needs of developing countries.

"As these technologies are developed," the President said Saturday, "we will work with our partners to help developing countries meet their growing energy needs by providing them with small scale reactors that will be secure and cost-effective. We will also ensure that these developing nations have a reliable nuclear fuel supply."

"In exchange," he said, "these countries would agree to use nuclear power only for civilian purposes and forego uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities that can be used to develop nuclear weapons."

Today, light water reactors dominate the commercial use of nuclear power, geared to large national markets with big electricity grids.

Countries with smaller grids and less well-developed technical infrastructures that now burn fossil fuels could use a different, smaller, reactor design, the Bush administration believes.

These smaller reactors could incorporate fuel designs that offer very long-life fuel loads that might last the entire life of the reactor so that refueling is not needed, the U.S. Energy Department explains on its Global Nuclear Energy Partnership website.

The smaller reactors might have remote monitoring, physical protection against sabotage and other terrorist acts, standardized designs in the 50 to 350 MWe range, potential for district heating and potable water production, fully passive safety systems, simple operation that requires minimal in-country nuclear infrastructure, use of as much existing licensed or certified technology as possible, and use of advanced manufacturing techniques.


An example of a small reactor is IRIS, International Reactor Innovative and Secure (Photo courtesy DOE)
Today, there are no fully developed or installed reactors that have all these features, the U.S. Energy Department acknowledges.

Under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership plan an international fuel services consortium of "fuel supplier nations" would choose to operate both nuclear power plants and fuel production and handling facilities. They would provide "reliable" fuel services to "user nations" that choose only to operate nuclear power plants.

Under a cradle-to-grave nuclear fuel leasing approach, fuel supplier nations would provide fresh fuel to conventional nuclear power plants located in user nations, typically by enriching uranium.

These conventional nuclear power plants could be either existing or next generation power reactors or the new, small scale reactors envisioned under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

Used fuel would be returned to a fuel supplier nation and recycled using a process that does not result in separated plutonium, the Energy Department says. The recycled fuel would then be used in advanced burner reactors in fuel supplier nations.

The advanced burner reactors do not yet exist either. These fast reactors would consume transuranic elements - plutonium and other long-lived radioactive material with atomic numbers higher than uranium - while extracting their energy.

Here, the word burn does not mean incinerate or combust, the Energy Department explains, it means to transmute or convert transuranics into shorter-lived isotopes.

Fast reactors have been demonstrated, but their use as burners requires further testing and such a test reactor, about one-tenth the size of a current nuclear plant, might be operational around 2014, under the Bush plan.

In the second phase, the Department of Energy would demonstrate a first-of-a-kind advanced burner reactor standard plant, operational by about 2023. This plant would have about the same capacity as current nuclear power plants.

Under all strategies and scenarios for the future of nuclear power, the United States will need a permanent geologic repository to deal with radioactive wastes resulting from the operation of nuclear power plants, the Energy Department says.

Yucca Mtn

Inside Yucca Mountain a 1.7-mile cross-drift tunnel has been built for scientific studies near the potential repository area. (Photo courtesy DOE)
But if the transuranic elements in spent nuclear fuel are consumed, not disposed of as waste, there would be a smaller volume of waste to handle. Then, the Bush administration reasons, "the planned geologic repository site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has the technical capability to accommodate all the used U.S. commercial nuclear fuel that has been or will be generated by U.S. nuclear power plants over their lifetimes."

If the Bush administration establishes nuclear fuel reprocessing the new policy would overturn a 30-year ban on the technology. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1977 promised that the United States would not reprocess spent nuclear fuel.

The challenge, says the Department of Energy (DOE), stems from the fact that certain technologies used to separate out plutonium from used fuel, could be used to produce material for a nuclear weapon.

To develop more proliferation-resistant separation processes, the Bush administration says the U.S and its international partners would conduct an engineering scale demonstration of a process that would separate the usable components in spent commercial fuel from its waste components, without separating pure plutonium.

The new technology known as UREX, for URanium EXtraction, was developed by the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. This chemical separation process produces a mix of plutonium and uranium, which can be recycled to fuel reactors.

Once the technology is demonstrated, these nuclear fuel recycling plants would only be located in countries that are "fuel supplier nations," thus reducing the proliferation risk, the Bush administration proposes.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists says that the Department of Energy's own research contradicts the administration's premise that "proliferation-resistant" technology would make plutonium inaccessible and undesirable to terrorists and states pursuing nuclear weapons.

Dr. Edwin Lyman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists points to the work of Dr. E.D. Collins from DOE's Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, and Dr. Bruce Goodwin of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"It clearly demonstrates that the administration's new reprocessing program will pose a serious risk that terrorists could acquire the material needed to make a nuclear weapon from a U.S. facility," Lyman on February 9.

"The safest thing to do with plutonium is to leave it in spent fuel since it is kept in large, heavy casks and is fatally radioactive," said Dr. Lyman. "Experts agree that no reprocessing technology developed or proposed to date is proliferation-proof."

Currently, there are four operating nuclear reprocessing plants in the world - COGEMA's in La Hague, France; Mayak in Russia; Thorp at Sellafield in the UK, and Tokai, in Ibaraki, Japan. The United States built one at West Valley, New York, which operated from 1966 to 1972 but was shut down when it could not keep pace with stricter regulations.


Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing plant on the coast of Cumbria, UK operated by British Nuclear Fuels, Ltd.(Photo by Simon Ledingham courtesy Visit Cumbria)
Concerned that the Bush plan for reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel would not be sufficient to prevent theft by terrorists, while the plutonium mix that results from these technologies could be used to make a nuclear weapon, 28 groups sent a letter late last month to all 535 Members of Congress urging opposition to the reprocessing proposal.

In addition, nuclear fuel reprocessing would be "extremely expensive," said the groups, which include Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS).

They quote a 1996 report by the National Academy of Sciences, that estimates the costs of reprocessing and transmutation of irradiated fuel that has already been discharged by existing U.S. reactors as "easily could be more than $100 billion" in 1996 dollars.

Most important, the groups warned Congress, "Reprocessing poses a serious risk to the global non-proliferation regime."

"Such a proposal," they wrote, "would promote an ineffective 'Do as we say not as we do' approach, undermining U.S. credibility on non-proliferation."

Mary Olson, of the NIRS Campaign to Stop Reprocessing, said, "The existing nuclear reactors around the globe are already sitting-duck terrorist targets. Separating plutonium from nuclear power waste fuel as reprocessing does simply sets up new and inviting opportunities for terrorists to seize fissile, bomb-capable materials."

"Support for a reprocessing program makes a mockery of statements coming out of this administration that protecting the American people from terrorism is paramount," Olson said. "Instead, it will put more Americans in harm's way."

In the United States, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 established the Nuclear Power 2010 program, a joint government-industry cost-shared plan to identify sites for new nuclear power plants, and streamlined regulations for siting, constructing and operating new nuclear plants.

The Bush FY 2007 budget seeks $54 million for the Nuclear Power 2010 program. Under this program, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources February 9, a new nuclear power plant constructed by the private sector could be in operation by 2014.

The technology focus of the Nuclear Power 2010 program is on advanced light water reactor designs.

The new regulatory system would allow industry to apply for Early Site Permits that pre-qualify a site for potential nuclear power plants and then for combined Construction and Operation Licenses to build and operate new, advanced plants with fewer regulations than the previous generation of nuclear power plants had to meet.

The first three Early Site Permits are planned to be issued in 2007, potentially leading to the first Construction and Operation License submittal from industry in 2007-2008 and the first power company decision to proceed with construction by 2010.

The Energy Information Administration projects that over the next 25 years, demand for electricity in the United States will grow by over 40 percent.

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership is online at: http://www.gnep.energy.gov/